In 1885, amid a period of strife between the Canadian government and some of the country’s indigenous peoples, the Cree leader Poundmaker was arrested and convicted on charges of treason-felony. For years, modern leaders of the Poundmaker Cree Nation have been trying to clear his name, arguing that he was, in fact, a peacemaker. On Thursday, their efforts came to fruition when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally exonerated Poundmaker and issued an apology for his treatment.
According to Stephanie Taylor of the Canadian Press, the acquittal was made during a ceremony at Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, at the site where the leader’s remains are buried. Hundreds of people—among them elders, chiefs, indigenous war veterans and federal politicians—were in attendance.
“In 1885, Chief Poundmaker was treated as a criminal and a traitor. In 2019, we recognize the truth,” Trudeau said.
“Our government acknowledges that Chief Poundmaker was a peacemaker who never stopped fighting for peace. A leader who, time and time again, sought to prevent further loss of life in the growing conflict in the Prairies.”
Poundmaker, whose Cree name was Pitikwahanapiwiyin, came into a position of leadership at a fraught time for his people. Indigenous groups on the plains of Saskatchewan were becoming increasingly concerned about the federal government’s plans for the lands that they lived on, and sought to negotiate a treaty that would protect their territory from white settlers and surveyors, among others. Over-hunting of bison had also depleted a vital food source, and starvation was becoming a serious concern.
In 1876, Poundmaker, then a minor chief, attended treaty negotiations between government representatives and leaders of the Cree, Assiniboine and Ojibwa peoples. The government offered to create reserves for the group, and to assist them with agricultural initiatives. It is unclear if the indigenous representatives understood that by signing the treaty, they would be ceding control of their land; according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, it is “unlikely” that they did, “especially considering there is no specific mention of this in the commissioners’ notes and because this concept would have been completely foreign to the Plains Indigenous peoples, who had a different understanding of land ownership than the commissioners.”
At any rate, the idea of the government granting his people reserves on their own territory rankled Poundmaker. “This is our land,” he reportedly said. “[I]t isn’t a piece of pemmican [a type of dried meat] to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.”
Other leaders, however, felt they had no choice but to enter into an agreement with the government, and the treaty was signed in August 1876. Two years later, Poundmaker and his people moved onto a reserve.
It soon became clear that the government did not intend to uphold its end of the treaty. Food and supply rations that had been promised to the group did not come consistently, and Poundmaker’s people grew restive. They were not the only ones. In 1885, the Métis—people of mixed indigenous and European ancestry—and their First Nations allies in Alberta and Saskatchewan launched what is known as the North-West Rebellion against the government.
In March 1885, Poundmaker and his men traveled to meet an “Indian agent” in the town of Battleford, hoping to collect the rations that were owed to them. Frightened by the ongoing tumult, the agent refused to leave the protection of a local fort, reports Brennan Doherty of the Star Calgary. When homes were raided in the aftermath, Poundmaker’s men were blamed, but CBC’s Jason Warick reports that “other accounts point to settlers or other First Nations.”
Tension came to a head in May of that year, when 325 armed troops led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Dillon Otter attacked Poundmaker’s camp. After an hours-long battle, the attackers were repelled. Control of the warriors had been slipping away from Poundmaker, but he managed to convince them not to follow Otter’s men, averting more bloodshed.
Poundmaker subsequently offered to enter into peace talks with government representatives. He was told to surrender unconditionally. In late May 1885, he was arrested and accused of “treason-felony,” which was punishable by imprisonment, rather than death, according to Warick. Poundmaker spent one year in prison and, just a few months after his release, he died.
The narrative that emerged from Poundmaker’s trial painted the chief as a violent instigator—“a real smear job,” Blair Stonechild, co-author of a book that re-examines the role of First Nations people in the North-West rebellion, tells Bonnie Allen of the CBC. And so it was with mixed emotions that the people of Poundmaker First Nation greeted Thursday’s exoneration ceremony.
“We are all very excited, honored, thrilled,” Milton Tootoosis, a headman and councilor at Poundmaker First Nation reserve, told Doherty of the Star Calgary. “At the same time, I think it’s going to be very emotional and kind of sad because of who Poundmaker was and the fact it took this long to have some justice—to clear his name.”